SEOUL – Pop, went my zits.
At least, that’s exactly how it felt as Dr. Lee was zapping my cystic acne away with his magical electric wand.
I’m laying on a patient chair in a dark room where my eyes are covered with protective goggles. I see nothing but a dark red shade and the occasional flashing lights from the electrocution. Apparently, this process is something called the V Beam, a laser that beams light onto acne scars to force its collagen production. The procedure isn’t anything new but is extremely affective in treating hyperpigmentation and acne scarring.
While some people go to Disneyland for vacation, others head to Dermatologyland, here at Oracle Clinic.
Though my eyes may be covered, my ears are not. And what my eardrums are picking up are unpleasant sounds of the occasional sizzle and crackling of my pores. It’s followed by an unsavory lingering smell of burnt squid, which Dr. Lee later explained to my horror, was my own singeing human skin. The pain is bearable, only because I have a high tolerance, but I can feel my eyes are wet, soaked in tears like when someone pinches way you too hard or when you’re trying not to sneeze.
“It’ll all be worth it,” I mutter to myself, my brackish eye juice rolling down my cheeks.
It’s my first treatment inside Seoul’s Oracle Clinic in its chic Cheongdam location, one of South Korea’s most prestigious plastic surgery and dermatology centers. Apparently a who’s who of clients from famous Korean pop stars, models, to politicians frequent here.
I’d been experiencing the worst skin of my entire life. Cystic acne had been taking control of my pores that summer. Red, flaring and angry, I was losing this battle. For months, I’d slathered benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, sulfur, and exfoliating every night to no avail. I tried every at-home treatment. I even did something drastic out of desperation – extracting them myself to find a blood bath and huge scars left behind. It was a mistake I would obviously regret. My once poreless skin had turned into a graveyard of dead cells, scars and hyperpigmentation. Out of desperation, I decided to fly overseas to South Korea, the capital of cosmetic surgery and dermatology to reverse the damage.
To my right are two Russian women, wrapped like mummies in tight gauzes, their Chanel sunglasses blocking out the bright florescent lights above us.
While some people go to Disneyland for vacation, others head to Dermatologyland, here at Oracle Clinic. Except instead of Mickey and Minnie Mouse cheering you onto Big Thunder, it’s doctors in white lab coats and android-like women who ease you into your own plastic surgery journey.
Oracle Clinic has become such an attraction, people come from all over the world for plastic surgery vacations, with hotel stays and meals included in the package. Today, Oracle Clinic boasts over 60 offices all throughout Asia including locations in China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, among others.
But like many, making an appointment at Seoul’s flagship clinic seems more of an authentic experience. Somehow, it feels as if being inside the original location makes for better results. Which is why, in the waiting room, there are dozens of men and women from all over the world who are just like me, beauty sojourners who’ve come to the mecca to reverse their luck.
To my right are two Russian women, wrapped like mummies in tight gauzes, their Chanel sunglasses blocking out the bright florescent lights above us. A man who’s on his lunch break, sits in a corner while a white cream seeps into his pores, his chin covered in a plastic wrapped. Teenage Korean pop trainees scroll their iPhones with their red post-facial complexions, waiting for the doctor to give them the okay to leave. And then there’s cystic acne-faced me, a beauty editor here experiencing all Seoul has to offer.
I can’t help but think I’m in a post-apocalyptic world of sorts or one from a parallel universe from an episode of Black Mirror.
“Yi Junyoung,” a man says politely, calling out my Korean name. Swiftly, two young men clad in crisp button-ups and fitted black trousers talk into their ear pieces, zigzagging throughout the clinic with a military step. They take me to the back of the clinic where I meet other staffers, a gaggle of women, whose complexions are dewy and glowy, their makeup delicately highlighted with a bright pink blush, their hair neatly tied into buns. They’re perfect and beautiful, almost clone-like, each equipped with the abilities of extracting, creating face masks, and beautifying patrons’ skins. One of the women takes me into the back room for a facial and leads me to lie on a heated table.
As I tuck myself into the scratchy covers, I observe that I’m not alone. An American-like spa treatment this is not. At this clinic, it’s all about efficiency, meaning, there are handfuls of others sharing the space. There isn’t a private room, or curtains separating us, rather, an open space where dozens of clients lie next to each other. Each has a Korean woman tending their skin, applying a goopy blue rubber mask facials, ones that smell of sweet menthol that goes on cool and soothes your skin post-laser treatment.
I can’t help but think I’m in a post-apocalyptic world of sorts or one from a parallel universe from an episode of Black Mirror. Though it’s impressive to see a no-fuss clinic where clients go in and out, it’s also a bit eerie seeing men and women in hoards with blue goo applied, in unison.
Before I can think too hard, I’m next.
The woman wraps my hair neatly up and proceeds to provide me a “scaling” treatment. What’s simply known as a “facial” in the states is known as 스킨 스케일링 or “skin scaling,” a term that is used for maintenance cleaning. Just as you’d get your teeth “scaled,” so you would to clean out your pores. The entire process of scaling is different from an American facial, I realize. Korean scaling is all about treating your skin so you prevent acne from coming back. Unlike most American facialists I’ve had who are too timid to extract anything, Koreans are no-nonsense and get every last blackhead or pus-filled pore. It’s impressive. It hurts like hell.
I become a regular at Oracle Clinic, where the staff expects me every Thursday at noon. It was like a constant work out for my face, one that’s extremely painful, then extremely calming. The pain and pleasure become like a drug, one that I look forward to, one that strangely seems to release endorphins.
With immediate results, going to a skincare clinic becomes a sort of addiction. I look forward to getting closer to a flawless complexion. My scars were fading by week two. My hyperpigmentation was almost gone by week four.
While in the States, an appointment at a dermatologist’s office takes hours and doesn’t include a facial, every clinic in South Korea does. It’s convenient if not super efficient. Patients are in and out in less than 30 minutes. But with such efficiency comes little to no real human interaction. Even after going into my treatments on a weekly basis, I didn’t even catch the names of the women who so diligently worked their magic on my face. There wasn’t an exchange of words more than “how are you?” or the “Thank you very kindly.” I wondered if it was unprofessional to get too close to patients. Perhaps, there were just too many to keep track of. At the end of my treatments, I felt as if I was a robot who came in for its weekly repair.
At the end of the month my skin was certainly dramatically changing. The areas where I received laser treatment healed and the weekly facials allowed my pores to be squeaky clean. My cystic acne was fading and the acne scars that once seemed so obvious were blurred out, almost as if they never existed in the first place. It felt like a miracle.
On my last day of treatment, I asked to speak to Dr. Lee, the dermatologist who worked his magic and transformed my skin completely. I realized I saw him for a total of 12-minutes and exchanged less than a handful of words. Wanting to thank him in person and pay my respects before I left the country, I wanted to at least shake his hand.
As I waited for him, I sat inside the sterile lobby. I never noticed a video playing quietly in the distance. It was one that was on constant loop with cameos from Korean pop stars and models giving their testimonials, promoting Oracle Clinic’s greatness. One segment has a model talking to camera, explaining to viewers about how much her life has changed after her treatments. Another shows a Korean pop girl group bowing in deep respect, their lead singer informing patrons that they made the right decision. A few minutes go by with a couple of others who more or less say the same thing.
I’m about to leave and spot a male singer, his eyes staring into the camera’s lights. As I stare back, the video creepily comes to a stop, the man and his half-smile frozen onscreen. It’s uncertain what exact treatment he received but his skin radiates and glows. It’s perfect. I can’t help but smile back as if he’s looking right at me. His smirk is warm, it’s bright, it’s haunting.
To visit Oracle Clinic, head here. Laser treatments start around 400,000 Won.